September 14, 2022

Pizza - Could This Be The Best Pizza In Houston?









I think so. 

Only open from 9:00 to 2:00 on Sunday, ORG Pizza is tucked away a little north of Tidwell on Yale at 5618 Yale.  

Chef Andrea is from Rome. 

For me, the crust is perfect. Chewy and delicious. The quality of ingredients is about as good as it gets. His skill as a pizzaolo, well, for me, I wouldn't want to eat anywhere else on a Sunday, mid-day. Prices are almost too reasonable. 

And, he also produces excellent gelati in remarkably interesting flavors.


John Nechman writes: “. Thank you, thank you, thank you to H-Town mortgage guru John Frels, curator of the Houston Heights Foodies page, for sharing the "secret" of ORG Pizza Garden (5618 Yale St., in the northern stretches of Independence Heights). The business model for this hidden-in-plain-sight spot is somewhat baffling:  open only Sundays from 9-2; 3 tables inside and a few more hard benches outside, mostly exposed to the elements; a masonry pizza oven set up in a trailer in the middle of the outdoor patio; barbed wire topping a chain link fence surrounding the rather bleak looking property; business development coming mostly from word-of-mouth from those who've dined here before.

And it works!

Why? Because the food is spectacular. Frels and Houston foodie extraordinaire Jay P. Francis (who also visited ORG yesterday) have called the pizza the best in the city. It's definitely a contender.  If you've had the 2 most famous styles of Roman pizza: al taglio (square and thicker crust, sold in "cut" squares) and tonda (thinner, crispy crust and usually round), this pizza from Chef Andrea dal Monte is like the best of both--pizza alla pala. It somehow manages to be both fluffy and crispy at the same time and comes out in an oval shape on  a traditional wood paddle. At $10 for the most expensive version (the magnificent matriciana, made with a rich marinara infused with guanciale and pecorino), this is one of the best deals in town and one of the tastiest pizzas.  I couldn't get a close look at the oven, but it appeared to be a Marona forni oven--perfect for cooking this style of pizza.

Also from within this magical oven comes the bread for the farciti, sort of a stuffed toast.  We tried the version with fresh-sliced prosciutto, camembert, a slather of figs compote, organic arugula, and golden local honey, and it soars to the highest rankings of Houston's best  sandwiches. I hope Jeff Balke, who compiles a list of best sandwiches for the Houston Press, gets to try this one).  A stunner of a sandwich.

We somehow managed to scarf down a maritiramisu maritozzo (sweet bun) as well and left with a pint of peach, balsamic venegar, and roasteed honey ice cream to enjoy later.

You can bring your own booze (for $14 a bottle, Total Wine & More sells an orange Sun Goddess Pinot Grigio Ramato from Mary J Blige that is refreshing and pairs with everything!), which means an exceptional Sunday lunch with wine for 2 can easily come in under $40. This place is still under-the-radar enough to likely have seating if you show up early, but before long, unless they expand (and hopefully open on other days, too), it won't be possible to find a seat here.“

September 3, 2022

Gumbo in Houston - A Work in Progress

 


















Beginning in February of 2021, I began sampling gumbo at restaurants around town. Some were not great. Some were good enough. And some would warrant a return visit.


First off, the ones that I did not like.

Acme Oyster and Seafood. The first time I sampled it, there wasn't any seafood to speak of in it. Just a mediocre, lukewarm gumbo broth. The second time, pretty much the same experience. Not recommended.

Eugene's Gulf Coast Cuisine. The day I went the chicken in the gumbo had that warmed over flavor profile that comes from refrigerating chicken and bringing it out of the fridge the next or subsequent days. 

Eunice Restaurant. The chicken was so heavily smoky that this became a one note gumbo. Smoky chicken.

Goode Company Seafood. A thick, flour-y gumbo broth that was really unpleasant. See roux comments under "Flying Fish".

State Fare Kitchen on I-10. I sat at the bar and ordered the gumbo. The bartender said "let me bring you a sample first to taste as some people think it is too dark." Well, I LOVE a good gumbo where the roux has blackened sufficiently. It shows the chef has the necessary skills. In this case, it wasn't a dark roux. It was a burned roux. And I was so grateful that I got to do a taste test first. Big tip to the bartender that day.

Flying Fish on Durham. I really wanted to like the gumbo here because they are local to the Heights. When you make a roux, that hot oil breaks down the glutenin and gliadin, the two proteins that form the gluten web when liquid is added. So the flour loses its thickening ability as it develops for the nutty roux flavor we all love. Although the roux here was dark, the gumbo had this thick flour paste feel and taste to it that was very unpleasant. There was a nice amount of sausage and shrimp but I couldn't get past that flour paste consistency. Same problem that I had with Goode Company Seafood.

Alfreda's. I remember not liking this one bit. Can't remember if it was because it was really greasy (but not in a good way like at Viola and Agnes) or that the spicing was just unbalanced. I seem to remember thinking "clueless kitchen".

Joe's Deli on Winkler on the East Side. More like a gumbo porridge. Cheap sausage, with a texture more like Vienna sausages. Broken up bits of rice cooked down in the gumbo. 


And now, on to some gumbos that I liked.

House of Roux in Old Town Spring. For me, this is about as good as it gets. I discovered that I like dark, thin roux broths, like what I had at Liuzza's by the Track in New Orleans. I like them more than the thicker, flour gravy rouxs. For me, House of Roux, along with Viola and Agnes, and Bayou City Seafood are my three favorite gumbos in the Houston area.

Bayou City Seafood on Richmond. I liked this gumbo a lot and it was one of the true bargains for the price. Big shrimp. Real seafood. I've been back three times now.

Viola and Agnes on NASA Road 1. Still my favorite. The chef is from Lake Charles. The gumbo is really rich, with a layer of spicy oil on top, and includes a crab claw and a chicken drumstick. This is a place I would take out of towners as I pretty much like everything on the menu.  (http://www.houstonfoodexplorers.com/2021/07/gumbo-viola-agnes-nasa-road-1-in-clear.html )

Zydeco Restaurant in downtown Houston. I ordered both a seafood gumbo and a chicken and sausage gumbo. The steam table looked really sad, but the gumbo. These were the simple but well prepared gumbos that I could eat every day. Actually, I had planned to just have a taste of each bowl and take the rest home. But spoonful followed spoonful and I burned through both bowls. And the jalapeño cornbread was tasty, too. Now, they had jars of Kary's Dark Roux for sale. I'm not sure if they make their own or just use the jar roux. 

Le Pam's House of Creole out on 1960. Very Louisiana. Very home cookin'. I liked the way the gumbo came together as it was ordered. Some roux and broth. Add some seafood. Heat it up. Tasty gumbo for sure. One thing that I suspect, though I'm not 100% sure...unlike every other gumbo I've tried, the Le Pam gumbo seemed to have a hint of Zatarain or Louisiana Foods crab boil liquid in it. 

7 Spice Cajun Seafood (right across the street from Le Pam's, and, I see that there is now one on Westheimer also). Funny that I did two places in one day. I suspect the gumbo at 7 Spice is more "chain restaurant", might have been where they just opened a jar of roux, etc. But you know, something about it, I kinda liked it just as much as Le Pam's. Go figure.

Grace's on Kirby had a decent gumbo that I would order again.

Supreme Gumbo. A little food truck on Southmore at Almeda. A tasty gumbo with a real Lousiana feel to it. I look forward to having it again.

Lucille's. They feature a gumbo z'herbes, which I always thought was a meatless gumbo for Lent made with 9 kinds of greens. But theirs had meats in it and I've since learned that this is not out of the ordinary in the world of Louisiana gumbo. Online, I've seen a bunch of recipes for this type of gumbo that include ham hock or other types of meat. (the Leah Chase recipe has chorizo, sausage, brisket, etc. for example : https://www.southernliving.com/recipes/leah-chase-gumbo-z-herbes) It was a tasty gumbo.

Little Daddy's Gumbo Bar. In Galveston and also in League City. I've always liked their gumbo and enjoy getting a bowl when I am out that way.

Saigon House. The Vietnamese restaurant of chef Tony Nguyen, located out on 1960 (aka Cypress Creek Parkway). And a mile or so from Le Pam's and 7 Spice. A gumbo that I really enjoyed. Some comments from others indicate it may be a tad inconsistent so, fingers crossed, it will be delicious on the day that you visit. Here's a photo of their gumbo presentation.






















Babin's Seafood Katy. I was torn on whether to give this a "favorite" listing or a "good enough" listing. It's part of the Landy's chain of restaurants. I'm pretty sure it is a jar roux. But it was a nice, dark roux. And the shrimp were succulent, though not as impressive as, say, Bayou City Seafood. In a pinch, I'd go back for the gumbo. 


"Good Enough" gumbos.

Abe's Cajun Market in Clear Lake.  A salty gumbo which would normally be an instant deal breaker. But I really like this gumbo. Even with its saltiness, it has a nice amount of sausage and chicken and a pretty good flavor profile.

Brennan's. Again, a gumbo with no soul. Kind of bland. Kind of boring. I wouldn't order it again. But not bad, so I put it in this "good enough" column.

A friend said good things about the Jason's Deli gumbo (prepared at one location in their commissary). I tried it at two locations and found it tasty enough.

Crawfish Cafe in the Heights. And I think the original location is on Bellaire Blvd. Again, a perfectly acceptable gumbo. The place is rocking at night, due to the boiled crawfish or seafood that you order sauced to your particular tastes.

Crescent City Beignet on San Felipe. An "okay" gumbo with no soul to it.

Captain Benny's. A perfectly acceptable gumbo. 

Frank's Americana. It was a thicker gumbo than is my preference, but I liked the flavor. And the shrimp in it weren't over cooked.

Roux Pour. Various locations. A decent enough gumbo from a chain.

Joyce's. A perfectly acceptable gumbo.

Pier 6 in San Leon. Another "okay" gumbo. Smallish serving. Decent flavor. Included okra in the recipe. Included two oysters which was a plus. But they cooked the smallish shrimp in the gumbo instead of cooking them separately and adding to the hot broth just before serving. So the shrimp were tough and not very appealing.



August 31, 2022

The Cuban Flavor Restaurant - A John Nechman Discovery




John Writes: "The Foodie Finder Award of the Day goes to my dear friend of many years, Professor and Navy Veteran BK Silva, who shared with me a Friendswood spot that one of her students told her about--The Cuban Flavor (709 W. Parkwood Ave.). The student is from Miami and told BK that the Cubano here is on par with the best of southern Florida. Having lived in and eaten many of these glorious sandwiches in Miami, I had to try it.

Everything about the Cubano here is spot on--great bread and superb ingredients. Definitely a contender for best in Houston. Making the visit extra-special is the friendly staff, as well as a pungent batido de maracuyá, a crispy croqueta de jamón, and one of those simple dishes that I crave incessantly--boiled yuca topped with mojo. And of course, to end the meal, a perfect café cubano that had me reminiscing of ones I've loved in Miami and La Habana.

Kabab Arbil (or Erbil) on Hillcroft - Could this be the FINEST kabab place in Houston?

It has been awhile since I got happy enough over a meal that I wanted to “champion” a restaurant to assure that it gets well known. Kabab Arbil is such a place. When you go, and you must put this on your list for 2022, go with at least two other persons so that each of you can order something different. Because the ground beef, chicken and lamb shank offerings were all spectacular! I wish that I could post the videos here of the dishes as they were brought out to us. But on my Facebook page (Jay P. Francis) and also on the Houston Chowhounds group that I admin, I have the videos of our lunch.













A. Jay Francis writes: " Another John Nechman discovery. He tells me he was driving down Hillcroft and saw the sign. And this place is a winner. Starting with a lamb or beef broth called marak (?)(Im using Google translate with some of the staff) followed by the exceptional mezze you see in this photo. We confirmed that several of the persons are Kurd, so there may be a Kurdish influence on the cuisine here. Several people were pleased to chat in English but I was so happy to be able to use Google translate app to communicate to everyone here. "


B. John Nechman writes: "Our nation's 4 largest cities have the most astounding diversity and greatest food in the country, but the 4th of the 4 (and soon to be 3rd!) has the best of all. Maybe not the largest number, the most countries/cuisines, and not even always the most authentic. But Houston's is the most accessible. In many cities, venturing into ethnic enclaves often leads to awkward indifference and a distinct sense of unwelcome. I've never felt that in Houston. Not once.

And our welcome yesterday at Kabab Arbil كباب أربيل (3330 Hillcroft) was genuine to the point I wanted to start huggin'. The staff beamed with pride that we were there to enjoy their food and hospitality. Though I've eaten at and loved Iraqi food before, the family here is Kurdish, and they hinted that we were about to embark on one hell of a Kurdish feast.
We lunched with our friend and foodie extraordinaire, Jay P. Francis, who loves as much as we do to sample all the rich cultures and foods of our city. Jay makes every effort to embrace and engage in the cultures of the places he visits--he was somewhat unnerved to learn that using homemade pita as a headdress is akin to dropping the soap in the shower at a LUEY Weekend Shower Party.
Our dapper server informed us that many of the menu items were unavailable, but he suggested we order whatever kind of meat we wanted. Jay went lamb, Richi chicken, and I beef. We then received several spectacular mezze dishes--a gloriously creamy, tahini-juiced humm s; another hummus of red chile pepper; a smoky baba ghanouj, a vinegary chopped red cabbage salad, and another salad of eggplant and peppers. He also served us steaming bowls of a lamb stew in a fragrant paprika-infused broth. I could have eaten bowl after bowl of this remarkable stew.
The massive entree plates arrived, covered by hubcap-sized homemade pita. All 3 meats were extraordinary--Richi's chicken looked to be burned, but it was the spices coating the meat, which was fork-tender and juicy throughout. My kebabs were as delicious as I've had anywhere in Houston, and Jay's lamb shank was succulent and bursting with flavor. Every detail on the plate shined, from perfect spiced rice to roasted tomatoes and onions that maintained their integrity instead of being burnt to the point of flavorlessness. Sides of stewed beans and fresh baby okra added to a near-perfect lunch.
And it really was--this was one of the best meals I've had in Houston...hell, anywhere. You can taste the influences from areas surrounding Kurdistan--obviously, the Middle East, but also from the Subcontinent, Russia, and quite a bit of Turkey. But Kurdish cuisine is distinct and brilliant, and we are very fortunate to have this delightful place right here in H-Town's Gandhi District.

Here are six terrific photos by Houston Culinary Journalist for Edible Houston Magazine, David Leftwich. This reminded me of how much I am craving that lamb shank:










August 30, 2022

Mexican - Time Machine Tex-Mex (Mexican Food, Circa 1960's Era)

This year, I decided to start exploring Houston, in hopes of locating Tex-Mex restaurants that were keeping the recipes that I remember from my youth alive.

Anyone who has seen the movie, Ratatouille, knows the famous scene where the dish of ratatouille transports for restaurant critic back to his childhood.

Tex-Mex can have the same effect on me. Truthfully, there are a lot of things to not like about the mess that we call the combination dinner. Too much salt. Too much grease. No vegetables to speak of. Artery clogging cheese and meat. And I have joked that if an alien was dropped into Texas and served up a big old mess of Tex-Mex, he might remark, "What the heck is this on my plate?"

But for those of us who grew up here, Tex-Mex seems very right and we love it. As a kid, my family ate at an El Patio on Telephone at Park Place at least twice a week.

In the eighties, new menu items started appearing and certainly there are now many restaurants that offer fare more typical of the food of northern Mexico and other regions.  For example, the menu at the charming Morales on 76th Street could as easily be the menu of a small comedor (eatery) in Monterrey, Mexico.

With my recent very positive experience with what I fondly call Retro Tex-Mex at Spanish Village on Almeda (established 1953), I thought that I would put together a list of favorite places that, if one could time travel back to 1960's Houston, these would be the combination plates that one might be served.

Now, I know that my suggestions are going to generate a lot of "why did you choose that place and not this place" comments in the comments section. Well, this is not an exclusive list. It's a starting point for your explorations around town. Some you will probably recognize. Others may be off your radar and new to you. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section.

And so, here begins my list, a list of restaurants where that combo plate will have frijoles refritos, arroz a la Mexican, a flour/oil/chili powder "chili" gravy to cover the enchiladas and tamales. The tortillas for the enchiladas will have been dipped in hot out to soften and then stacked until ready to use. The rice will be slightly red from tomatoes, seasoned with cumin and hopefully, light and fluffy. The beans may be watery or slightly thick and probably made with pinto beans. If you are lucky, the crispy taco shell will be puffy and inflated like a balloon (Los Tios is the only place that I know of that still do these...but, I am talking with Spanish Village to see if they might be interested in figuring out the recipe with me; I'm pretty sure that it is critical to use yellow corn nixtamal as, when I tried to make them with white corn nixtamal, they absorbed too much oil and got soft after a few minutes).

Here is a link to this article, as originally written for and published in Phaedra Cook's Houston Food Finders:

Houston Food Finder - Houston Retro Tex-Mex Link


El Toro Mexican Restaurants
Baytown (3 locations) and Various Locations in La Porte, Lake Jackson and other cities

Currently, one of my top 3 favorites, having recently dined at the Garth Road location in Baytown. Founded circa 1960 by Eugenio Ybarra, the food is classic Tex-Mex. And the service is spectacularly good. The oldest location on Bayway Drive still has these great, retro 60's era booths. Try the Numero Uno on the lunch menu.










Las Hadas
2428 Center Street, Deer Park, Texas

I really liked, and recommend you order the biggest combination plate on the menu in order to sample a little bit of everything. Although the rice wasn't as light and fluffy as I would like it to be, I thought the frijoles refritos were really good. The beef (picadillo) in the taco tasted cleaner and less greasy than in a lot of places. And the combo plate has real chile con carne gravy instead of the typical chili gravy.
































Spanish Village Restaurant
4720 Almeda Road
http://www.spanishvillagetx.com

With new ownership, and a new ownership, with the classic recipes prepared well, and with the closing of Fiesta Loma Linda, Spanish Village is my default go-to Mexican restaurant in Houston. As of March 2022, they have changed the way they make sauces. Now made in small batches. The larger batch prep of the past, that often led to burned tasting chili gravy, burned taco shells, burned tortilla chips, has been fixed with the newest management. One can see, from the menu, that there is a more serious focus on fajitas in place of the traditional combination plates. Birria, shrimp tacos and caldo de camarón have been added to the menu. It's funny but, what I really look forward to eating here isn't necessarily the combination plate but (imho) their most delicious shrimp soup (see photo)


















































La Plaza
1803 Bingle Road

Established in 1964 and serving classic Tex-Mex. A bowl of chile con queso arrives at your table with the menu. Go for the combination plate #1.


































El Penjamo
6110 Lyons Avenue

My father's first store, a little 5 & 10 Variety Store, was on Lyons Avenue and my earliest memories are of this area in the 50's. On a recent visit, I discovered three Mexican restaurants along the street. El Penjamo has a menu featuring the dishes from Northern Mexico and the carne guisada plate looked really good. However, I was here for the Tex-Mex offering and ordered the #1 which was pretty amazing. Check out the color of the cheeses. Looks like they used one of those nacho cheeses for the queso and standard cheddar for the enchiladas. The meal begins with a small bean and fideo soup.































El Potosino
Galena Park, Texas) on Clinton Drive

The restaurant was established in 1970 and the recipes are the same as then so we are talking about a time machine, time warp of about 50 years. Classic old school Tex-Mex.

























Don Key Mexican Restaurant
5010 Spencer Highway, Pasadena
Established in 1984. I came across this time warp treasure via their billboard on Old Galveston Road that I noticed one day when driving back into Houston.






























































Los Tios (Beechnut)
4840 Beechnut Street
www.lostiosrestaurant.com

Los Tios is a Houston institution and currently the only place that still make the puffy and crispy taco that was once very typical of Houston Tex-Mex. This location on Beechnut is a favorite.





















Don Teo's
2026 W. 34th Street
http://www.donteos.com

The story of Don Teo's is pretty interesting. This location was one of the original Monterey Houses in Houston, this one franchised to Don Covington. Now in his 80's, he still comes by for Tex-Mex every week. The Martinez family that own it now, Don Teo and his son, Teo Jr., worked for decades for the Monterey House chain. Junior began as a kid and worked his way through the various stations of a restaurant. He is an absolute delight to chat with and we recommend to be sure to say "Hi" when you visit.





El Paraiso (on Fairview in Montrose) ( Possibly Closed Now)
2320 Crocker Street

El Paraiso, too, prepares class Tex-Mex, and also offers house made moles and a few northern Mexico regional dishes.





















Don Carlos (on 76th Street)
416 76th Street
www.doncarlosrestaurants.com

On the east side of town, what is becoming known as Eado, though, we prefer the name Canaviburg,
Don Carlos has a long history of serving Tex-Mex.
























Mi Sombrero
3401 N. Shepherd at 34th Street
www.misombrero.com

Mi Sombrero offers classic Tex-Mex dishes and like Don Teo, serves the Garden Oaks and Shepherd/Ella area of Houston. For my taste, a little on the salty side. But hey, it's Tex-Mex.


























Fiesta Loma Linda - (NOW CLOSED AS OF 2018)
2111 Telephone Road
http://www.fiestalomalinda.com

(We are sad to advise that, after 62 years, Fiesta Loma Linda closed in May of 2018):
Our favorite because of the classic, Houston style puffy tacos that they continue to make and make well. Originally a classic diner, the owners friendship with the owners of the now long gone Loma Linda Restaurant by Palms Center, follow the original Loma Linda recipes. 





























Lopez Mexican Restaurant
11606 Wilcrest Drive
www.vivalopez.com

Another historically significant, classic Tex-Mex institution. This one serves the Stafford, Hwy 59 at Wilcrest Houston area.





















Monterey House (Beaumont, Texas)
1109 S 11th Street, Beaumont, Texas
www.monteryhousebmt.com

OMG. The holy grail. The mecca for lovers of classic, retro Tex-Mex. The franchisee bought the rights to the recipes of the original Monterey House chain in the 60's and continues to duplicate the original recipes. A must stop for anyone travelling east on Highway 10 through Beaumont. For more details, please see this link:
Monterey House - Beaumont






















Larry's (Richmond, Texas)
116 E Highway 90A, Richmond

Larry Guerrero worked for Felix Tijerina back in the day, and, when he expressed interest in creating his own Mexican restaurant, Mr. Tijerina provided assistance. Ninfa Laurenzo also offered help in exchange for his buying his masa products from their family tortilleria off of Navigation.
Be sure to pick up a Larry's t-shirt when you visit. It is one of the coolest looking t-shirts in Texas.






















La Hacienda (Memorial)
14759 Memorial Drive
www.lahaciendamemorial.com

If you grew up in the Memorial area, your family probably went to "La-Ha" at least once a week. It is a Tex-Mex institution for Memorialites.

























Old Mexico (Northside)
3306 Hopper Road

This is about as old school as you can get. Red tortillas for the enchiladas, salsa and queso served with chips, classic rice and beans. Yep. You will want to get the enchilada plate here. Note: there isn't a sign outside so you may actually pass by Old Mexico the first time that you try to find it.
























A Gastro Obscura Article from 2016 on the taco:

The Texan Who Invented Chili Powder Also Accidentally Created the American Taco

BY DAN NOSOWITZ JANUARY 14, 2016

An American hard shell taco. (Photo: Luca Nebuloni/flickr)
For many Americans, a taco looks like this: a U-shaped deep-fried corn tortilla shell filled with seasoned ground beef, shredded iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese, and maybe salsa or chopped tomatoes. It’s emoji-level recognizable, an ’80s and ’90s childhood staple. But the taco’s detractors have been taking aim in recent times. “A few years back, like watching a favorite childhood movie and noticing how terrible it really is, I finally realized that hard taco shells are a sham,” wrote Serious Eats food writer J. Kenji López-Alt in a 2011 post reminiscing about the less-than-stellar taco nights of his childhood. Anthony Bourdain has repeatedly lashed out at Taco Bell and Tex-Mex for sullying the true Mexican taco with dirty American ingredients. 
Like General Tso’s chicken or a meatball parm sandwich, it seems logical that the American taco has no real relationship to its original culture. A carnitas taco served on a paper plate in Mexico City—that’s authentic. A ground beef taco served by a Taco Bell in Indianapolis, well, that’s something else. Something worse.
But where did the American taco really come from? And what does it say about us?

First of all, it’s a mistake to believe that the iconic hard shell taco is something that clueless white people invented. “Both Americans and Mexicans would love to believe that the hard-shell taco was a travesty of an invention by clueless gabachos. But that’s simply not the case,” says Gustavo Arellano, perhaps America’s foremost scholar on the taco. Arellano is the writer behind the advice column “Ask A Mexican,” the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, and also the editor of the OC Weekly newspaper in his native Orange County, California.
“Mexicans have been eating what we now call tacos since time immemorial,” says Arellano. “The idea of stuffing something into a tortilla—we’ve been doing that since there were tortillas, so we’re talking thousands of years ago.” But Mexican cuisine is incredibly regional, being almost as varied in climate and geography as the U.S., from deserts in the north to the tropics in the south, the Sierra Madre mountain range in the west to central valleys. And Mexican cuisine is a product of varied influences the same way American cuisine is; the many different Indian populations; the Spanish conquest; waves of immigrants from North, South, and (especially recently) Central America; French, German, and Jewish immigrants from Europe during World War II; Lebanese and other Arab immigrants who brought meat-on-a-spit traditions.
All of these blended together and were filtered through the ingredients that people had at hand. There are old ways of doing things, and newer ways. But they’re all Mexican, and for Arellano, “good” and “bad” are largely unrelated to “old” and “new.” The term “authentic” is entirely meaningless.
Taco shells. (Photo: Helen Penjam/flickr)
Tacos, says Arellano, were until the 1800s generally more popular in central and southern Mexico, where more common fillings would be pork, chicken, seafood, or vegetables. But the taco’s popularity increased in the 19th century in the north, and northern Mexicans had a different meat of choice. “All of northern Mexico is beef country,” says Arellano. “Sonora, Baja California, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, that’s where beef is king.” That was as true north of the border as south. “Putting a whole bunch of ground beef on a flour tortilla is a cowboy tradition,” says Robb Walsh, a Galveston-based food writer and authority on all things Texas, from barbecue to Tex-Mex. (He also, coincidentally, went to the same elementary school as Arellano before moving back to Texas.)
There are a few different types of beef tacos; carne asada, grilled hunks of beef, is most common, but lengua, tongue, along with a few other offal cuts especially from around the cow’s head are also easy to find. Ground beef, though, of the type you’d find in Taco Bell? That would be most recognizable in northern Mexico as picadillo.
Picadillo is a dish consisting primarily of minced or ground meat and is found in pretty much every country Spain ever had a hand in, from Mexico to Cuba to the Philippines. It varies from country to country and region to region; in Caribbean cuisines, especially Cuban, Dominican, and Puerto Rican, it’s often cooked with raisins and olives and served with rice. In Mexico it varies in form, sometimes served as a soup, sometimes cooked with less liquid with potatoes (sort of like a hash), and sometimes even drier and less saucy and served in a taco.
Crispy tacos, too, exist perfectly authentically, whatever that means, in Mexico, and have for quite a long time. Sometimes they’re called tacos dorados, or golden tacos, and if the taco is first rolled into a cigar shape before frying can be called a taquito or sometimes a flauta, depending on size or just local terminology. “They’re often made with potatoes and eaten during lent,” says Arellano. The main differences between tacos dorados and a Taco Bell taco is that the filling may be slightly different, and will be fried to order (and sometimes fried whole) rather than placed in a pre-fried shell. But really, they’re not all that different.
Fajitias in a packet: Old El Paso mix on sale. (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/flickr)
In 1914, the recipe widely cited as the earliest known recipe for tacos was published, by Bertha Haffner-Ginger in a book called California Mexican-Spanish Cookbook. Her recipe describes the taco as follows:
“Made by putting chopped cooked beef and chile sauce in tortilla made of meal and flour; folded, edges sealed together with egg; fried in deep fat, chile sauce served over it.”
This would not easily recognizable as a taco today; I think most would identify this dish as an empanada. But the parts are all there, setting the stage for Old El Paso and Taco Bell.

The story of most American adaptation of new dishes in the 19th and 20th centuries relies on two processes: preservation and mass production.
In the late 19th century, the Mexican-influenced dish of choice in the U.S. was chili con carne, not the taco. In Mexico, dried chile peppers are and have always been a major part of the cuisine, but are sold whole, to be toasted and rehydrated or otherwise prepared as the cook desires. The chief innovation that made the American taco possible was chili powder, a store-bought item not found in Mexico.
An 1894 advertisement for chili powder. (Photo: Internet Archive/flickr)
Chili powder was first sold in 1894 by its inventor, Texan-by-way-of-Germany Willie Gebhardt, for use in chili. “What people don’t seem to appreciate is that getting ingredients back then was not as easy as it is today,” says Arellano. “Today you go to your local Latino supermarket and you can get whatever. Back then, you had to improvise.” Gebhardt was unable to find the chile peppers he wanted year-round, and so bought a huge stockpile of the peppers, which were probably ancho, and ran them through a meat grinder a few times to pulverize them. He later began selling the powder already made—a huge convenience for anyone wanting to make the then-trendy chili. (German immigrants in Texas also tended to wrap their own sausages in tortillas, an early Mexican fusion cuisine, as Arellano told SF Weekly.)
The other ingredients—cumin powder, tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, ground beef—have connections to parts of northern Mexico, but to suss them out would be to ignore the real reason they were used: that’s what was readily available in America at the time. Cheddar cheese is hardly ever found in Mexico, but in the U.S., it’s the second-most-popular variety, after mozzarella. And it was already being used often in Texas, especially in concert with ground beef, in the hamburger. So, sure, cheddar cheese. That’s what’s here, why not?
The ultimate American expression of the taco: Taco Bell. (Photo: Mike Mozart/flickr)
The next major step in the development of the American taco was fast food. “Glen Bell, of Taco Bell fame, he got the idea for Taco Bell after watching the McDonald brothers get insanely rich in San Bernardino, California,” says Arellano. Bell had a hamburger and hot dog stand right across the street from a popular Mexican restaurant, and by 1951 he had reverse-engineered the taco and began selling it, including the tacos dorados popular in southern California. But, inspired by the McDonald’s ideas of interchangeable parts made in advance, Bell came up with a new idea. “Glen Bell is credited as coming up with the pre-formed taco shell,” says Walsh. And that turned out to be a turning point for the fast-food industry.
Arellano doesn’t think there’s much more to the comparison of hamburgers and tacos than that, but I can’t help seeing massive similarities between the two. These are both ground meat-based dishes served in starch out of drive-thru fast food places, making them perfect for on-the-go eating. They’re both commonly served with lettuce, tomato, onion, and cheese. They’re constructed the same way; all that needs to be done is to cook the meat and assemble everything else in the right order. “Picadillo has been part of Mexican cooking forever,” says Walsh. “I’m sure that is an older tradition than Sloppy Joes.” That’s true, and explains the origins of the food, but for an American in 1965 who wants to try ethnic food, the roots of the dish wouldn’t be clear at all. What I think they’d see is basically a hamburger in a different, more fun form. Arellano disagrees.
“Intellectuals have always underestimated Americans when it comes to Mexican food,” says Arellano. But Mexican food remains in the pantheon of foreign foodstuffs that by now are just…American food, along with elements of Italian and Chinese cuisines. “Americans have always sought out what they thought in that moment to be authentic Mexican food,” says Arellano, whether that was chili con carne in the 1880s, tamales in the 1930s, hard-shell beef tacos in the 1960s, or Mission-style burritos in the 2010s. He sees the American love of new foods, including Mexican, as an earnest attempt to explore and try new things—it’s just that, sometimes, only certain elements of those new foods are available.
Taco Bell’s breakfast menu. (Photo: Mike Mozart/flickr)
Regardless, the American taco became unavoidable by the 1960s: you could get it at a fast-food joint, or you could buy a kit from brands like Old El Paso or Ashley’s. These kits would include seasoning packets, sometimes ground beef, the tortillas (which disturbingly were sometimes sold in cans), and a mold so you could fry the shells in place. This spoke to 1950s and 1960s Americans: the taco dinner was cheap, sort of exotic but sort of familiar, and everything was basically premade.
Arellano recommends taking the taco, American and Mexican, for what it is, and not what those Arellano calls “authentistas” would like it to be. “Mexicans and Americans have romanticized Mexican food as being somehow more true and pure than American food,” he says. “And Mexican food is really the original mongrel cuisine. And that’s what makes it so delicious.” Really, there’s no part of the American taco that would preclude it from being tasty—nobody says you have to use a premade seasoning packet of stale, bland spices, or a brittle, prepackaged taco shell. Giving as little care to basically anything as Americans often do to the taco will result in lousy food, whether it’s Sloppy Joes or boeuf bourguignon.
In other words: get off the hard-shell taco’s back.